Earlier this week, Shailene Woodley sat down with The Hollywood Reporter to discuss her role on one of HBO’s biggest hits, Big Little Lies. Season one of the series concluded with Jane Chapman (Shailene Woodley) recognizing her rapist merely seconds before the man fell to his death. Five months have passed since the finale and the start of Season 2, and Jane has returned to the screen with a new look. Her hair is darker, styled with straight-across bangs. This move was intentional. Woodley thought her character needed to look different, as identifying Perry Wright (Alexander Skarsgard) as both Jane’s rapist and the father of her son had a deep impact on the character. This impact translated into a shift in Jane’s physical appearance.
“At the end of season one when Perry died, I felt like maybe two or three weeks after that incident she would have woken up one morning, looked at herself in the mirror and thought, ‘This isn’t who I am anymore. This monster is gone and I’m not going to let him live in me or control me any longer,'” Woodley said. “It is something that I think is missing in a lot of our storytelling on TV and in movies today — somebody’s path toward reconciliation with themselves and reclaiming of themselves.”
Changes in Jane’s physical appearance were accompanied by a change in vocation. The single mom now works at the Monterey Aquarium, where romance is already sparking between her and a coworker (Douglas Smith). Jane has also made steps in opening up about her assault. This comes across in two impactful conversations. Jane first speaks to her son, Ziggy (Iain Armitage) about the identity of his father after the 10-year-old hears gossip about Perry at school. This brings Jane and Celest Wright (Nicole Kidman) to unite their children, now openly half-brothers, under a roof of honesty and candor. Jane also speaks about the assault to Perry’s mother, Mary Louise Wright (Meryl Streep), who has entered the narrative in the aftermath of her son’s sudden death.
With this being said, in only three episodes, Big Little Lies already promises major shifts for Woodley’s role. This journey fills the actress with hope.
When asked about the process of reentering the world of Big Little Lies, Woodley was quick to admit her love for the franchise and its fans. “It’s incredible,” the actress said. “People have been asking for so long and it just feels good to have it in the universe and up for grabs by whoever is interested in the season.”
This question transitioned the conversation into a discussion on character. In the past, the cast of Big Little Lies have been open on the collaborative nature of the show, speaking on how everyone provided input on each character. Woodley took a moment to discuss this experience, and how it influenced Jane moving into season two.
“[The storyline] was up to David E. Kelley and his creative genius, but I was very adamant that we explored what a healing journey can look like. There are so many things that we deal with in our show that are relatable, unfortunately, for people,” Woodley said, addressing the complicated past of her character. “Whether it’s domestic violence, sexual abuse, infidelity, lies, etc. I thought it was really important to show a young woman who had survived rape and who had survived so many atrocities in her life — like being a young mother without very much support from anyone else around her — and yet forging through with a bravery and a courage that has helped give her son a beautiful life. That we provide her a chance to heal. And that we show what one person’s healing journey can look like. Because all of our paths to healing look so incredibly different. It’s important if we’re talking about these subject matters to also talk about how these things might be a part of your story, but they don’t have to define who you are. And that was the case with Jane this year.”
The troubling fact that her Jane’s experiences are relatable to some audience members is not lost on the actress. This brought about a demand for authenticity, and a need to convey her character’s experiences and subsequent healing journey in a way that felt honest and real. “It absolutely makes it richer,” Woodley described the impact of Jane’s history on the depth of the character, and the process through which she was developed. “This season felt so incredibly important. I grew up with two psychologists who would come home every day, and we would sit around the dinner table and they would tell me horrific stories of what they saw at work while working with kids. Yet I was also very fortunate to hear the survival stories and how people were able to move through specific trauma. It is something that I think is missing in a lot of our storytelling on TV and in movies today — somebody’s path toward reconciliation with themselves and reclaiming of themselves. So it felt important to be as truthful and as honest and as vulnerable [as possible] with Jane this season, because it would be very easy to act the experience of falling in love again, or act the experience of wanting to be sexual again, instead of genuinely feeling that trauma in your body and exploring the mind-body disconnect. Jane’s mind is living in 2019; it’s living in the present and ready to move on, but her body is stuck living eight years ago when she was raped. And her body doesn’t know how to move past that trauma. So trying to find ways to explore that sense of release and reconnection between body and mind with 10 minutes of every episode was tricky, but that’s why it felt all the more important to capture the right beat when given the opportunity.”
Woodley circled back to her character’s bangs, which drew media attention following the release of the season two trailer. “I’ve been in this position in my life where, after a major breakup, triumph or celebration or after a big change, a lot of people alter the way they look. I know for myself, it’s always been haircuts and piercings,” Woodley said. “That’s been my way of moving forward in new chapters of my life. I felt that for Jane, she’s carried this weight of not feeling in her own body because of what happened to her for eight years. She felt disconnected from her own identity on not just an emotional and mental level, but on a physical level as well. At the end of season one when Perry (Skarsgard) died, I felt like maybe two or three weeks after that incident she would have woken up one morning, looked at herself in the mirror and thought, ‘This isn’t who I am anymore. This monster is gone and I’m not going to let him live in me or control me any longer.’ In that moment, I feel like she took a pair of scissors and cut her bangs herself. And she went through her closet and gathered up almost everything and took it to the nearest clothing swap store and donated it and got new clothes in order to reestablish and be in control of her identity again. I felt like that would have been her reclaiming her space, even if it was a subconscious decision, because this ghost who has been a part of her identity for so long had then left on the physical level.”
The conversation moved toward Jane’s son, and the pivotal conversation that took place between the two characters. Rather than Ziggy learning the complete truth about his father through other avenues, it was important for Woodley that Jane came forward with this information before he had the opportunity to learn about it from anyone else. This conversation came across not as one between an adult and a child, but rather as one between two adults.
“I think that parents have no idea what they’re doing. I assume that when I become a parent, I’ll have no idea what I’m doing,” Woodley admitted. “You’re just trying to keep your kid alive; you’re trying to keep your kid safe. But at the end of the day, you’re trying to figure out your own life as well and Jane being a young mother, I felt like in that scene she didn’t have the tools or the awareness; she wasn’t equipped with the right aid in order to speak to him as a child. I think she herself went into ‘I’m just a child; mode. She had to speak to him straight-up because that was the only way she knew to communicate. I think that when shock and adrenaline hits your system, and embarrassment and shame and fear and pain hits your system, you react almost on a one-way street with whatever your natural instincts are. And that was her natural instinct in that moment. She didn’t know how to do anything different.”
The tonal divide between this conversation and the one that later took place between Jane and Meryl Streep’s character, who cannot accept the wrongdoings of her dead son, is wide.
“It’s really easy for us to judge Meryl’s character right off the bat,” Woodley said, speaking about the complexity intrinsic to their every interaction. “And it’s easy to not want to empathize with her. But, like you said, all she wants to do is figure out [what happened]. This is her way of coping and her way of dealing through her son’s traumatic death. I really find it fascinating how David wrote her character and then how Meryl chose to portray her. Because no matter how conniving or rude or sketchy Mary Louise can be, she’s always grounded in her form of justice and there’s something to be said for that. Our show explores the themes of not being seen, not being heard and loneliness. Even this group of women who are now ‘friends,’ they’re friends forced by circumstance. They’re not natural friends. Maybe Celeste [Kidman], Jane and Madeline [Witherspoon] are. But all of these women don’t necessarily truly get along or agree with one another. But they love each other based on the experience that they shared. And I think Mary Louise is an extension of that extreme loneliness in a room full of people who feel that constantly. But because of the facade and all the white-picket fences we put around our personalities, pretend like everything is fine when the house is burning down. Mary Louise doesn’t have time for any of that. She cuts through the BS in her pursuit of justice and that’s what feels so abrasive about her, but that’s what also feels very intriguing about her.”
This level of complexity extended to the relationship between Jane and Celeste, who both experienced sexual assault and abuse at Perry’s hand. The process of portraying scenes between the two survivors was, to quote Woodley, “tricky.”
“That’s probably the one thing I wish we had more time in the show to explore,” Woodley continued. “The relationship between Jane and Celeste is so dynamic and deep and chaotic, not only because of the circumstances that Jane and Celeste shared with Perry, but also that they’re now sort of raising these boys together. They’re both on their own. They’re both still psychologically dealing with the pain that Perry incurred upon them, and yet they both have to be strong and figure out a way to forge forward in their lives with their children being half-brothers by the extension of rape and infidelity. There’s just so many complex emotions at play. These women I think deep down want to resent one another, but can’t because they genuinely love each other. It’s just messy, like so many of our relationships are. I don’t think any friendship or relationship is black and white. There’s a big gray area in everything and I think for Jane and Celeste, that gray area is dense and thick and it’s also not something either of them are tapping too deeply into, I think out of the fear of what could happen if they open those doors.”
When it came to developing the relationship between Jane and her coworker, Corey, to whom Jane explains her need to stay in “neutral,” Woodley mentioned that she had to draw from chapters of personal experience.
“I can research all day long — and I did do a lot of research, via YouTube videos and articles and a few books that I’ve read — but, for the most part, a lot of the things that I brought to Jane were from personal experiences I’ve had or personal experiences very, very close friends or family members of mine have had. And that’s what helped me form how she was going to move forward with Corey, more so than researching elsewhere. Because it’s such a personal thing and, like I said, everyone’s journeys are so different,” Woodley explained to the interviewer. “I can only pay homage to who I thought Jane was as a person using circumstances that I could personally very closely relate to.”
The interview ended with a question on Jane’s transformation and the upcoming end to the character’s journey. “The final episode actually changed a lot between reshoots and the time of filming. So I don’t actually know how it ends still,” the actress admitted. “I’m very much an audience member when it comes to season two of Big Little Lies. But I will say that the way Jane’s storyline ends just filled me with a lot of warmth and a lot of hope for the world. And for women and for men who are of any age who are trying to move past trauma in a way that fuels their future with a sense of comfort.”
The fourth episode of season two of Big Little Lies airs next Sunday, June 30, on HBO.